“There are other worlds than these”
Traditionally, in stories modeled after the Hero’s Journey, the main character receives a call to action, which he or she initially resists. Take, for example, Bilbo Baggins, who is cajoled out of his comfortable, quiet life to go on an adventure by Gandalf. In Stephen King’s fantasy stories, the characters are self-motivated. No one has to urge Jack Sawyer to light out for the Territories—he has a good reason to embark on a perilous journey. Similarly, Roland Deschain chooses his mission to find and save the Dark Tower, even though it will take him on a wild journey for the rest of his natural days. No one conscripts him. (Although, to be fair, sometimes his characters are yanked into a quest without being given any choice in the matter.)
In Fairy Tale, Charlie McGee Reade also decides for himself to go on a magical adventure although, when he sets out, he has no idea what dangers he will face and what will be asked of him while he attempts to achieve his goal.
When the book opens in April 2013, Charlie Reade is a 17-year-old high school student who plays on the varsity football and baseball teams. He’s big (6’4, 220 lbs) and in prime physical condition (which will serve him well on his upcoming journey) but not particularly fast, which is why he doesn’t play basketball.
In 2013, he’s in a pretty good place, but it’s been a difficult road getting there. His mother was killed in a freak accident when he was seven and, In the intervening years, his father drowned his sorrows in a bottle, leaving Charlie to be the adult. For a while, there was a good chance they would lose everything, including their home in Sentry, Illinois. Charlie’s way of dealing with this situation was by acting out. Led astray by a friend named Bertie Bird, he did many things he later regrets, several of which could have gotten him into trouble with the law if they’d been caught.
Eventually, his father’s former coworker comes to the rescue, introducing the elder Reade to the world of sobriety and recovery. Charlie had prayed to a God he’s not sure he believes in for a miracle and, now that one has been delivered, he intends to repay the debt. He volunteers for local service programs but none seem to rise to the level of what he feels he owes. Then one day he is in the right place at the right time to save a man’s life.
He is Howard Bowditch, a reclusive curmudgeon of indeterminate but advanced age who lives a quarter of a mile down the street from Charlie. His house resembles the one from Psycho, his property is poorly maintained and his female German Shepherd, Radar, has terrorized the neighborhood kids for years. When Bowditch falls and compound fractures his leg, Radar’s howls attract Charlie’s attention. Left unattended, Bowditch would probably have died. Charlie becomes a minor celebrity for the simple act of dialing 911. He tries to say Radar is the real hero, but human-interest stories have a life of their own, and Charlie’s picture appears in papers across the country when AP picks up the item.
Stephen King reads a chapter from Fairy Tale
Finally, Charlie discovers something that feels like a suitable way to fulfill his vow. Bowditch will be hospitalized for weeks and someone needs to look after Radar, who is no longer a terror but instead an aging dog with pain and mobility issues. Charlie, who has years of experience as a caretaker from tending to his alcoholic father, volunteers for the job and slowly gains Bowditch’s begrudging trust. The teenager also gives up sports so he’ll have time to make repairs to the house and grounds, scything the overgrown lawn and fixing steps, as well as installing things that will make it easier for Bowditch when he returns home—wearing an external fixator on his leg and dealing with an OxyContin addiction just as his creator did in 1999.
Bowditch has a secret and, as he faces up to his mortality, he realizes he must bequeath it to someone else, along with his dog. Like Al Templeton in 11/22/63, he has a mysterious portal in the shed behind his house. This one doesn’t lead to the past, though—it goes to another world beneath our own. Bowditch has made numerous trips down a set of spiral stairs to the land called Empis, but he has carefully guarded the secret of its existence. Unlike the Territories, which required special skills or magic elixirs to access, anyone could descend these stairs. If the military or big industry found out there was a new land that could be exploited for its resources, the impact on Empis would be catastrophic. So, on his deathbed, he reveals the secret to Charlie, entrusting the teenager to its safekeeping.
Nearly a quarter of the book is taken up with setting the stage for Charlie’s grand adventure. This is necessary time for Charlie to fall in love with Radar to the extent that he’s willing to deceive his father to save the dog’s life, perhaps even risking his father’s sobriety. While his father is away at a work retreat, Charlie descends into the well of the worlds, as he thinks of it, with the German Shepherd, who has been here before, on a mission that will surely take days.
I won’t go into what Charlie discovers at the bottom of those stairs in any detail. It’s a magnificent fairy tale adventure best discovered by tagging along with Charlie and Radar. Charlie’s motivation for exploring the land is only part altruistic (there is something in the walled city of Lilimar that can help Radar). It is also part avaricious. Bowditch has retrieved pounds of gold pellets from Empis over the years and Charlie suffers from a touch of gold fever.
Empis, like Mid-world, is in a state of rapid decline. The once bright, colorful world (which has two moons that race across the sky) is now nearly permanently overcast and everything is turning gray, including its residents. It is a place of magic operating under a curse, and some of the people Charlie meets are horribly disfigured.
Saving the land was never Charlie’s intention, but several people he meets encourage him to do something about Empis’s problems. As with the accolades he received for saving Bowditch, Charlie refuses to think of himself as a potential savior. He believes his unsavory past disqualifies him from being considered princelike, no matter how much he grows to resemble the hero in a Disney movie.
Most of the people Charlie meets on his long trek to Lilimar (Radar’s age and infirmity and numerous perils make it a slow journey) are helpful but there are, of course, suspicious people, evil characters and dangerous (and fascinating) creatures. (Not all evil creatures are to be found in Empis, though—Charlie has some harrowing encounters in the real world, too.) Many unexpected things happen when he arrives at the former home of Empis’s royal family, where the real adventure begins.
Early in the pandemic, King asked himself: “What could you write that would make you happy? As if my imagination had been waiting for the question to be asked, I saw a vast deserted city—deserted but alive. I saw the empty streets, the haunted buildings, a gargoyle head lying overturned in the street. I saw smashed statues (of what I didn’t know, but I eventually found out). I saw a huge, sprawling palace with glass towers so high their tips pierced the clouds. Those images released the story I wanted to tell.”
Each of the book’s thirty-two chapters (plus an epilog) have titles that itemize what is coming (for example, Chapter Eight: Water Under the Bridge. The Fascination of Gold. An Old Dog. Newspaper News. An Arrest) accompanied by black-and-white illustrations by Gabriel Rodriguez (Locke & Key) and Nicolas Delort that give, according to King, “the feel of classic novels of crime and adventure, from Treasure Island to Dracula.”
King has previously explored the nature of inspiration and creation. In Lisey’s Story, he conjured up a myth pool in a world called Boo’ya Moon where creative people go to drink. As Charlie marvels at things he encounters in Empis that seem drawn from the stories he was told as a child or from books he’s read, he begins to wonder if all our fictions arise from an overlap between adjacent worlds. If creative people can sense these other worlds, then perhaps what happens there can funnel down into their stories.
He encounters things that must have inspired Bradbury and Lovecraft, as well as the Brothers Grimm and other fabulists, plus Bible stories and tales of other worlds, such as The Wizard of Oz. It would also explain how so many similar stories appear in different, unrelated cultures around our world. Maybe Mid-World is one of those adjacent worlds, and incidents that occurred there inspired King to write the Dark Tower series. Would it surprise you to learn that Charlie encounters a man named Percy in a prison?
Once Charlie starts comparing things he encounters in Empis to fairy tales and other stories, he sees them everywhere. So, too, will readers. A list of such allusions would be lengthy and probably not exhaustive because each reader is going to see something they recognize that others might miss. For example, I had to look up “Dick Whittington” as I wasn’t familiar with that story.
The book occurs in a reality where people know about Cujo from movie reviews, not from news items. In his KingCast interview, King said Fairy Tale “is also about another world, but I tried to keep it as separate from the world of Gilead and all the associated places with the Dark Tower as possible and even then it crept in a little bit. It always creeps in.” Charlie is certainly a gunslinger, the geopolitical setup in Empis is mildly reminiscent of Gilead, and there are a couple of lines that will be familiar to readers of the Dark Tower series.
Saddle up, folks—King is going to take you on an adventure you won’t soon forget.